[First posted in December 2010 on www.deepeningcommunity.ca]
North Carolina is a state of exquisite natural splendor, a state of beautiful human diversity, and, today, a state of emergency. Close to a foot of snow blankets the mountain farm that I call home, and more is falling fast, piling up for the 40-mile-per-hour winds predicted for tonight.
In many parts of the world that might prompt a “So what?” But the state of North Carolina owns about three snowplows, and the farm I inhabit rests in an isolated mountain cove on the edge of a wilderness. So I’m not going anywhere for days.
It’s the day after Christmas. Early yesterday morning I borrowed a neighbor’s 4-wheel-drive truck in an effort to make it to the hospice center where my mother has lived for the past month. I fishtailed down the driveway on a sheet of ice through blinding snow. The radio’s Christmas carols were interrupted by a warning from the Highway Patrol, urging everyone to stay home, drive only in dire emergencies, and carry blankets and food, since it may be Easter by the time they get around to digging everyone out of icy ditches. I turned around.
I felt huge regret missing my mother’s last Christmas. But I took comfort in the fact that Mom, living in her own end-stage Alzheimer’s world, didn’t know it was Christmas. And that she was in the hands of compassionate caregivers. As soon as the thaw comes, I’ll show up with the poinsettia I got for her at the Christmas Eve church service and the warm socks, pretty music box, and stuffed lamb I wrapped up for her (she loves lambs).
I knew that I wouldn’t make it to the dinner I had planned to share last night with a dozen dear friends. So yesterday afternoon I pondered what to do with all the brown sugar and pecans, the pound of butter and five pounds of sweet potatoes I had purchased for the casserole I had expected to make. (Still pondering about the potatoes…)
I found a wonderful candy recipe online and some bittersweet chocolate in the cupboard. I enjoyed an afternoon of boiling butter and sugar, spreading the mixture on cookie sheets to harden, covering it with melted chocolate and chopped nuts, and then breaking it into pieces. I put together brightly wrapped packages of Pecan Toffee Bark for all the friends I missed being with, and family members far away, thinking warm thoughts about them.
As I was making the candy, I reflected on how many times recently I have felt a sense of community with strangers. The first blizzard of the season hit two weeks ago, while I was leading an Advent women’s retreat on lamentation and celebration at a retreat center on a mountaintop an hour and a half away. Getting home was an ordeal involving ferrying 26 women off the snowy mountain, a downed power line across the only road out, a flat tire, a closed highway, and 11 of us sharing three rooms, a pound of goat cheese, and a lot of laughter in a cheap motel.
Last Saturday, I stood outside a prison, waiting to make my annual Christmas visit with a friend on death row, talking, shivering, and stamping my feet with all the other friends and family members of men inside. The inmate count took two and a half hours to clear that day, which meant that when we finally got inside, only slightly more than an hour remained for a visit.
All week, good-hearted people from local churches and businesses have appeared at my mother’s hospice facility with eggnog and cider, cookies and popcorn and pie. Those of us who usually stay by our dying loved ones in their individual rooms have encountered one another in the community room, sharing holiday cheer amid the sadness of that wondrous place.
Almost nothing went according to plan for me this Christmas season. Circumstances beyond my control kept me from being with the people I love most. But I found community in every corner—among newly discovered neighbors, with women on an unplanned winter journey together, and in the shared hopes of strangers outside a prison and inside a hospice center. Unanticipated joy!